“Endless” is such a great title for an exhibition of work by Masaaki Yamada, painter who spent his existence in the pursuit of perfecting his self-expression. Do not mistake this exhibition for some drab Cezanne-esque show of empty still lifes that abstract into Cubist fragments and finally to Paul Smith stripes or bathroom wallpaper. The curators could have condensed the work into something less repetitive for more of an impact, especially given the genres of still lifes and abstract art, which for many raise the question “Is this even art?” YET this exhibition is one to experience precisely because it literally paints the process of artistic development.
It is important to understand Yamada in context. His childhood was spent during the WWII, during which he witnessed the firebombing of his home in Takadanoba and after the war suffered from malnutrition that led to tuberculosis. This is significant in his choice of genre when he began painting in earnest in the 1950s. Those drab Cezanne-like still lifes can be interpreted as Yamada’s dead feelings from his experience of war. The dearth of color is the most obvious demonstration, but the choice of items in these paintings is even more illuminating. Ninety percent of the containers in these still lifes are devoid of content, and only three or so paintings contain any fruit. Even then, it is not the focus. As Donald Ritchie observed in Yasujiro Ozu’s film Late Spring, the artist presents a vase in a gesture of offering an empty container for emotion. Yamada’s simply titled series ‘Still Life’ progresses to objects becoming more and more geometric and ending with a few Duchamp-ian Nude Descending a Staircase-styled still lifes. The style is nothing new, or if anything fifty to sixty years late in context of art history, but the personal meaning is there.
The ‘Work’ series from 1956 continues until 1997. This is perhaps the most exhausting section of the exhibit, with endless rooms of stripes. Some curatorial trimming would have been beneficial, but walking through it be conscious of where it begins and ends. The progressions seem so insignificant that it is a shock when you finish the exhibition and realize the work at the end is completely different from that at the beginning. Understand that the process of simplification is very difficult. Matisse’s cut outs, Rothko’s paintings, and Davis’s move away from chords to simplified modes are all examples of this.
‘Work’ begins with the same palette left off at in ‘Still Life.’ The rectangles become smaller with more of an emphasis on the space between them before morphing into lines, the artist’s emphasis from 1960-1965. The color choices of each panel of stripes please the eye, and the paint sometimes drips into adjacent lines, making the effect more organic than the carefully executed squares of before. Some areas have thicker textures than others in panels that seem to reduce paining to a purely 2-D object. Yamada declines to paint the sides of the canvas as other abstract expressionists did. Around the mid-60s, he simplifies further into reducing his palette to whites. This is could be called his White Period, where the lines become extremely fine as nothingness takes over. Symbolically this could reference those war sentiments and Yamada’s earlier work. At the height of his color achievement, there was a psychological imperative to return to a blank slate.
The work after this period becomes a bit more dull and uniform. The stripes and squares are no longer organic in texture and bleeding into one another, but instead are nearly perfect and almost machine like. These works constitute the “wallpaper” section of the exhibit that one could easily criticize. Something happens in the late 70s, though. The space between the perfect squares becomes multi-colored, dominating the eye with white lines that carry us through the paintings. Perhaps Yamada had to go through a stage of producing industrial-like works to discover the power of the space between his squares. In the 80s he refines his practice into his most original work, Work E. He begins with his square patterns of decades prior but then explodes into disregard for all of it with a sort of freedom he has not displayed since the end of the ‘Still Life’ series. It is almost as if in all of these series, right before he concludes he gets a surge of freedom and just allows himself to be taken by it.
Yamada’s final series ‘Color’ began in 1997 and ended with his death. There are a total of 10 works here, each intensely focusing on a single color. What draws the eye in these works is the frame. The color is most intensely observed in the middle of the frame and as the eye moves toward the edge, we get hints of other colors used to create the monochrome work. MOMAT chose to put these paintings at the front of the exhibit instead of the end, even though the rest of the exhibit is chronological.
From copying a master to achieving one’s own unique expression, Yamada Masaaki presents the perfect painter’s arch. From 1948-2000 we see him go from Cezanne-like still lifes to pure abstraction. Artistic leaps are subtle to the non-artist, but revolutionary for the artist, and the importance of having the sensitivity to pick up on this progression is a point the exhibit convincingly makes.